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Behind the ‘Bold, Ballsy Move’ of Hiring James Gunn and Peter Safran to Run DC

Gunn can still direct. Safran's company still has a deal with WBD. But for the next four years, their shared Job One is shaping a long-term cinematic vision for the comic-book brand.

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As DC Studios’ new co-chairmen and CEOs, James Gunn and Peter Safran aren’t just the heroes DC deserves. Unlike the Dark Knight, they’re also ones it desperately needs.

Hiring Gunn — director of “The Suicide Squad” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” — and Safran, manager-turned-producer of “The Conjuring” and “Aquaman,” ended a dramatic and months-long leadership search. Following the merger of Warner Bros. and Discovery in April, new CEO David Zaslav signaled his hopes for a 10-year plan for the brand and a desire to find a Kevin Feige of his own who could create a division to rival Marvel. Then-DC leader Walter Hamada, clearly not whom Zaslav had in mind, exited last week. Talks with “The LEGO Movie” producer Dan Lin went nowhere.

Maybe it was worth the wait. Producers and insiders who spoke to IndieWire say Gunn and Safran possess the singular creative vision needed to lead the DCU — not the “DCEU,” or DC Extended Universe, as it was previously known. The sources give Zaslav a lot of credit for the very old-school move of giving two creatives the keys to an entire slate of IP rather than an executive who might lack the vision to wrangle a common storytelling thread. That skill belongs to Feige and a select few others.

It will be several years before the new team can prove its worth at the box office. In the meantime, they will need to juggle several other DC movies and shows in the pipeline, manage expectations, and be flexible as Zaslav continues to cut costs and reduce debt across the company. They must build from scratch what Marvel took decades to achieve.

“I think the genius part of this is mixing James with Safran,” said David Baxter, VP development at Legion M, producer of “Mandy” and “Colossal.” “[Safran has] all the business chops that you need. He knows how to deal with talent. I think this was a bold, ballsy move, and I think it will pay off for Zaslav.”

An individual with knowledge of the arrangement told IndieWire that Gunn and Safran have a four-year deal in which they are exclusive to DC. As disclosed in Tuesday’s announcement, they’ll report directly to Zaslav and will work closely with Warner Bros. film chiefs Michael De Luca and Pam Abdy, as well as WB TV’s Channing Dungey and HBO’s Casey Bloys, with the goal of assembling a holistic creative vision for DC’s film, TV, and animation projects.

In that time, the individual adds, they’ll have full creative control over the direction of the DC brand. It may even give Gunn some leeway to continue directing and producing projects — as long as it’s within the DC family.

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James Gunn’s “The Suicide Squad”/Warner Bros. Pictures

Warner Bros.

Safran’s production banner The Safran Company recently re-upped its production deal with Warner Bros. and its president of production, John Rickard, will continue to oversee those projects including “The Nun 2,” which is currently shooting in France.

Gunn and Safran will continue to oversee TV deals that each already have in place — most notably, Gunn’s HBO Max hit “Peacemaker” that spun off from last year’s “The Suicide Squad.” They’ll also have some oversight on Matt Reeves follow-up to “The Batman,” according to the individual, but it’s unclear how or if it might connect into any wider cinematic universe.

The same is true for many existing DC series in development, such as The Penguin spinoff series from “The Batman” or Greg Berlanti’s long-gestating “Green Lantern” series. However, a second individual with knowledge said official connective tissue between any of the shows or movies is to be determined. The exception, of course, is Todd Phillips’ “Joker” sequel. Like its 2019 predecessor, it has always been within its own storytelling world.

Producers who previously worked with Safran told IndieWire that they don’t expect Gunn and Safran to make any marked changes to DC movies already in the works, but will quickly determine the characters they want to highlight and the tone they want to strike.

Gunn’s Warner Bros. ties date back to making two “Scooby-Doo” live-action movies, and he established an irreverent, in-your-face filmmaking style with his “Guardians of the Galaxy” Marvel movies. They also demonstrated his ability to create a franchise from even the MCU’s minor characters. And by rebooting DC’s “The Suicide Squad” last year, he demonstrated that he knows the comics (and their fans) by mining some of DC’s deep-cut characters.

While “The Suicide Squad” struggled at the 2021 box office between COVID and an HBO Max day-and-date release, bringing in $168.8 million worldwide against its $185 million budget, series spinoff “Peacemaker” set a single-day viewership record on HBO Max when the first-season finale premiered in February.

MAN OF STEEL, Henry Cavill, as Superman, 2013. ph: Clay Enos/©Warner Bros. Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

“Man of Steel,” Henry Cavill, as Superman, 2013. ph: Clay Enos/©Warner Bros. Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

Gunn has a large fanbase of his own, with an active Twitter presence. That will be key when it comes to navigating the loud and sometimes toxic DC fans who still clamor for the restoration of the Snyderverse. Still, even that crowd has a reason to be cheerful: The day before DC’s Gunn and Safran announcement, Henry Cavill confirmed on Instagram that he would return as Superman. Cavill first appeared as Clark Kent in Snyder’s 2013 film “Man of Steel.”

While Gunn may be the face of DC, Safran is well-regarded with talent relationships from his days as a manager. (Among his prior clients: Gunn.)

“When things went down with ‘Batgirl,’ I think a lot of talent got scared,” Baxter said. “‘Am I going to have the rug pulled out from under me?’ I think this is a brilliant move to assuage that fear.”

DC’s new leadership echoes Feige’s Marvel takeover in the early aughts — but because of Feige’s influence, Gunn and Safran face a different story. Budgets for superhero stories can be upward of $250 million; the 2008 “Iron Man” was a relative bargain at $140 million (or $192 million in 2022 dollars).

There’s also nut-and-bolt questions about DC film delivery. How will the production pipeline fit with De Luca and Abdy’s own theatrical slate? How will the DC vision work its way into animation and TV? And in the midst of Zaslav’s ongoing cutbacks, will DC have the budget and flexibility it needs for a full rebuild?

“Mike De Luca is clearly an ally,” Baxter said. “Mike is totally a fan. He totally understands that world, and I don’t think they would be at the table unless there was a level of trust. They’re going to give them enough resources, at least with the first couple of them to prove themselves.”

Ezra Miller The Flash Justice League

Ezra Miller as The Flash in “Justice League,” 2017. ph: Clay Enos/©Warner Bros. Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

©Warner Bros/courtesy Everett Collection / Everett Collection

And then there’s the elephants that came with the room. WBD’s challenges go far beyond DC, and Gunn and Safran are hardly starting with a clean slate.

Both “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” and “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” have been pushed back several times due to COVID and visual effects-related delays. The upcoming “The Flash” has been weighed down by star Ezra Miller’s bad press and criminal charges.

WBD’s reputation remains marred since canceling the nearly completed “Batgirl” movie intended for HBO Max, not to mention other DC projects in development like “Wonder Twins,” two Bad Robot series for HBO Max (which will be shopped to other platforms), and the news this week that Berlanti’s “Green Lantern” series will retool its focus and find a new writer. (Despite the timing, the second individual with knowledge says the series’ new direction is not related to Gunn and Safran’s hiring and was not their decision).

Paul Scanlan, CEO and co-founder of Legion M, agreed that after months of Zaslav taking heat in the press, “this is his opportunity to redeem himself” in the eyes of fans and the industry.

“I’m sure these guys weren’t inexpensive to get them to come over,” Scanlan said. “You don’t hire those two guys if you’re going to cut corners.”

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